Why Icon Writing and not Painting?

Dear Fellow Iconographers:unknown

Wherever I go, giving talks or workshops about Icons, there is always one question people ask:  “Why do you say Icon writing and not Icon painting”?  Most of you who have had class with me know the answer in a general way, but because it highlights some important issues, I want to clarify even more what we mean by “write” instead of “paint”.

Discerning and describing the difference between a religious painting and an Icon is the heart of the matter.  When you think of beautiful religious paintings, like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or Raphael’s Madonnas, or Da Vinci’s Madonna of the rocks, or countless other beautiful religious paintings- what are the differences between them and an Icon?  And why does it matter?unknown-1

Icons are images that contain Spiritual power and grace.  They do this by the combination of prayers, Traditions of the Church, sacred geometric composition, Scriptural narratives and the intention of the Iconographer to convey the Saints in the light of the Holy Spirit operating within them.unknown-2

Icons are meant to be Scripture in visual form.  In the readings at Church this past Sunday, about the Transfiguration in 2Peter 1: 16-21, just after God’s audible voice tells us “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased”, Peter says ” And we have the prophetic word made more sure.  You will do well to pay attention to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morningstar rises in your hearts.  First of all, no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

So, in that Scriptural passage is a clarification of the difference between an Icon and a religious painting – the religious painting has more of the artist’s personal interpretation and is less strictly following the Word of God. Michelangelo’s painting style is called “mannerism” and is emotive and expressive of more than just the Scriptural scenes depicted. This  development from the Renaissance onward,  has contributed to the marginalization of God’s Sovereignty in the contemporary world and culture.  THAT is why we make emphasis on “writing” , rather than “painting”so that we can bring forward, through the Icon, a more God-centric perspective, from an earlier time and attempt to become disentangled from the Humanism that we have unconsciously absorbed from our culture.unknown-3

There is a great deal more to say and document about this important shift perspective, and as always, I point the reader to Egon Sendler’s excellent book “The Icon, Image of the Invisible. Elements of Theology, Aesthetics, and Technique” for a more thorough treatment of the visual, and theological principles involved in Icon “writing”.

Perhaps in the next blog we can look at the issue of Pictorial space in an Icon- other key difference between religious paintings and Icons.

Just wanted to mention some interesting Icon Links to you all:  Icons and Their Interpretation is a blog I recommend if you are interested in the meanings behind the old Icons.  It is a site dedicated to the study of Greek, Russian, and Baltic Icons.  Here is a link to their recent post about the Icon “Let All That Has Breath Praise the Lord”.  It is a lovely Icon and really shows the Iconographic language and method of illustrating  Scripture.

Also, another useful link is that for the Museum of Russian Icons in Clinton, Massachusetts.  They have a variety of changing programs and exhibitions and I’m sure some will be of interest.

Last thing to mention for this blog is three Lenten Icon writing workshops I am offering before Easter – you are invited to any of these:

May God continue to bless the work of your hands, and keep you in His ways,

Christine

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